Bread: An Extraordinary Ordinary Food
Imagine holding a handful of flour. Give yourself a moment. Flour is lifeless. Flour is sedentary. Flour is mundane. Well, it can be. If that hypothetical flour in your hand hardly smells, hardly tastes and feels like dust, it shouldn’t. Flour, real flour, is potential: it is foundational, it is ready to bloom, it pulled us out of the mud in true promethean fashion. I promise the fourth wall will be repaired soon, but imagine now holding a loaf of bread, bread which is fresh out of the oven. You can feel its warmth through your oven gloves, and it seems to glow. A dark brown orb encapsulating your attention. The bread is alive, it is vital, it has spirit. It is an extraordinary, ordinary food. Bread is its transformation captured, a photograph of air. DH Lawrence claimed that the human soul needs ‘beauty more than bread,’ but that is a fallacy, for bread is beauty and ‘there is nothing more positive than a loaf of bread’.
Or perhaps bread is just bread? A foodstuff which is so ubiquitous and cheap that its importance has been likewise diminished. Supermarkets account for over 80% of the bread we buy and almost 50% of that is thrown away — a shame when you think that bread was once at the centre of civilisation’s development. Dragging us out of the dark ages, bread was the start of agriculture: it helped us nourish towns and cities, artists and politicians, the rich and the poor. But now, in return, we stuff it with rubbish: preservatives, flavour enhancers, and ash-like flour. We force feed it fast-action yeast, watch it grow abnormally, become bulbous, and expect it, above all, to remain perpetually cheap. If my possibly overzealous descriptions have left a few eyes rolling, but stick with me, because bread does matter.
Whilst our collective bread story starts some six thousand years ago, mine began in the late 2000s. They were my floppy-haired early teenage years when cooking was still a dormant passion and my vacillating hormones were spewing angst ridden lava everywhere. Nirvana was on the speakers and bagels were on the menu.
Waking up for another day at school I was always flooded with the same thought. This was not a thought of the day ahead, or a practical contemplation of brushing my teeth, or the frantic search for my school tie. No, instead I would think, with an almost irrepressible urge, of bagels. Specifically, New York style bagels, golden brown and supple with that idiosyncratic hole in the middle. A bagel perfectly toasted, slavered in butter and indelicately topped with the showy prince of yeast, marmite, second only to the stoic ruler, bread.
The bagels were dense, springy, sweet, and intensely filling — everything a hungry teenager needs and wants. Each glorious morning, I would place it before me, butter dripping into yellow blobs on the plate, and eat. By the afternoon, I would hurry back to the toaster, yearning for the salty-soft hit of the bagel. I plopped two halves in the toaster and within minutes I was satisfied. At night, it was the same routine again. Whether it was a long day, a rejection, a failure, a falling out, I would always turn to my loyal friend and the bagel would never disappoint. It took years to wean myself slowly off this routine and now I look at bagels with the low-humming resentment one can feel towards an old love interest. I shudder at the thought of the mountains I must have consumed.
Looking back at the depravity of my bagel days it is hard to clear a pathway to the bread I eat now. That bread was stodgy, sweet and fantastically American; I would love to have a go at making it now. During school breaktimes I would help devour bouncy and spongey loaves of white bread. They would appear and disappear in seconds — toasted violently and rapidly consumed until only a half-eaten crust was left behind. It was ultimately a childish reproduction of bread, one which is made to be shelf-stable and consistent.
I must, of course, stress that I do not mean to be too evangelical about what sort of bread people should eat. In a society which is continuously failing to provide properly for its members, cheapness is an ever-growing necessity. People are increasingly struggling to feed themselves and their families, relying on food banks or charities to provide their daily meals; the calories that bread offers are essential for those who do not have the chance to think about flavour or taste, let alone write about it.
However, cheap supermarket bread can be detrimental for our health; the ingredients added to include E-numbers, enzyme “improvers” (whatever that means), powdered protein, a host of different fats, emulsifiers, preservatives, and even added gluten. The good that bread can do, is taken away here and however cheap it is, doesn’t really do us any good. Bread should be much more than a sickly sponge. In fact, those ‘wrapped in plastic, somewhat edible, food-like substances’ I once loved, have a barely recognisable resemblance to the original food that so revolutionised the way we nourish ourselves. Done well, bread is not only nutritious, it is a vehicle for personal, social, environmental and political change.
So which bread to start with? I started with Focaccia. It contains all the joys that making bread should: it is tactile, simple, and forged from good oil and good flour. The bread should end up pillowy in the centre, with a crispy and salty crust. Experiment with toppings, but I never stray too far from rosemary, olive oil and salt.
Ingredients: 1x 7g sachets of dried yeast, 300g organic stoneground bread flour, 250g semolina flour, 2 tablespoons of runny honey, good quality olive oil.
Measure and mix your flour into a large bowl. Along with 7g of sea salt.
Add your yeast and honey to 300ml of warm water and mix together.
Make a well in the bowl and gradually pour in the water, whilst incorporating the flour. Also add a good glug of olive oil.
When the flour and water are mixed together into a dough it is time to knead. Push, pull, smack and stretch the dough until you have shaped the it into a round, spongey and smooth dough. Be patient, it will come together, give it time and a bit of power.
Leave the dough to rise in a warm, cosy place with a damp tea towel on top. Leave for an hour. When it has doubled in size, and knock all of the air out.
Shape the dough, square or round (it wants to be roughly 2cm thick), to your lightly oiled baking tray. Create those distinctive cavities all over the bread using your thumb.
Glug a good amount of olive oil, onto the dough and in the holes, and add rosemary sprigs to each hole. Pinch a generous amount of sea salt over the bread. Leave to rise for another hour.
Put your oven at as hot as it will go (250C) and bake for around 20 minutes, until springy and crispy. Hit it with some more olive oil and eat!
- Elliot Prior